How Democrats could win the South. Why they probably won't.

Democrats hope to tap into a changing South, but 2016 might be too soon. The working class white voter still dominates – and leans Republican.

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Democratic 2016 presidential candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, center, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, right, looks to the crowd after a democratic presidential candidate forum at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.

A sweeping look-around from Rock Hill, S.C., where Democrats met on Friday at a “First in the South” election forum on MSNBC, hints at what a Democratic South could one day look like.

The home of major civil rights events, Rock Hill is close to vibrant Charlotte and just down the road from the Research Triangle, the South’s answer to Silicon Valley, to which young progressives from around the world flock. Think northern Virginia, only with more vinegar in the barbecue sauce. The Carolinas are where Obama overturned conventional thinking about the South by winning North Carolina’s electoral votes in 2008.

Taking advantage of those shifting demographics is part of a Democratic strategy to turn back some of the Republican gains at the state level that have only intensified in the Obama era. Some political scientists have predicted gains for Democrats in the South as the powerful white working class loses demographic ground to minorities and immigrants. But that path now seems increasingly problematic as working class support for Democrats is bottoming out even above the Mason-Dixon line.

The fact that Republicans continued to shore up their dominance of state politics in this week’s elections by expanding power to the governor's office in Kentucky and keeping it in Virginia “is the single most overlooked and under-appreciated story line of President Obama’s time in office,” as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote this week.

While the story at the national level suggests a Republican Party that is growing increasingly white, old and out of step with the country on social issues, the narrative at the local level is very different. Republicans are prospering at the state level in ways that suggest that the party's messaging is far from broken.

The “harsh reality for Democrats is that they cannot achieve … [their] objectives without increasing their support among white working class Americans,” writes Andrew Levison, author of “The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support,” in a 2014 New Republic article

“The party could ‘write off’ white working class in the South and still win many elections, but it’s impossible to write off working Americans in all of the Red states or in all non-urban areas and still have a stable and enduring Democratic majority,” writes Mr. Levison.

State legislatures have long been the incubators of new political talent but Republicans now hold 30 of 50 state legislatures. When it comes to rebuilding state party organizations, testing state policy that could become federalized, and grooming new candidates, the Democrats acknowledged on Friday they have a lot of work to do.

A year after Democrats in Georgia unsuccessfully ran two candidates with well-known political last names – Dem. Jason Carter for governor, and Michelle Nunn for her dad’s old Senate seat – they’re now struggling to find stronger candidates for upcoming Congressional races.

Talking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow at the “First in the South” event in Rock Hill on Friday, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton addressed white Southern voters directly, citing a study this week that showed middle-aged mortality going up among lower-educated whites, many of them who live in the South.

“We’ve got really bad indicators for people … and that’s the kind of work we need, to begin to turn around some of these very difficult conditions that people are coping with,” Ms. Clinton said. (She also said she likes to “eat hush puppies in my Hush Puppies.”)

Candidate Bernie Sanders instead turned to the Democratic power center in the South: African-Americans. He suggested a constitutional amendment to protect voting rights, a slam against concerns about voter fraud that have driven voter ID movements in many red states, including South Carolina.

To Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University and coauthor of “Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics," the failure by Democrats to connect with white working class voters in Georgia, for example, has created a single white Democratic stronghold in the state: the small city of Decatur, Ga., the home of the Indigo Girls and well-known for progressive street festivals.

That fact suggests that “the political agenda of minorities and liberal whites doesn’t represent the values or priorities or interests of [working-class] white voters,” says Mr. Black. “My goodness, Democrats are not even campaigning among poor whites.”

To be sure, Democrats nationally can still find a road to presidential victory that bypasses the South. After all, the six most Republican Southern states have 48 combined electoral votes, while California, which now votes firmly Democratic in statewide elections, has 55.

Yet Democrats face other problems. The massive get-out-the-vote that brought Obama to power has faded at the state level. Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton met with state organizers, and promised to breathe new air into moribund organizations gearing up for an election without Obama on the ticket.

And this week, Republicans continued to expand their dominance even outside the South by electing Republican Matt Bevin as governor of Kentucky, breaking a Democratic lock on the governor’s office that dated back to the New Deal. Opposition to Obamacare and the White House’s environmental policies, especially on the coal-rich Appalachian slopes in eastern Kentucky, sealed the Democrats’ demise.

There are some bright spots for Democrats, including recent gains in North Carolina and Virginia. The region’s major urban areas, places such as Houston and Atlanta, are firmly Democratic.

And in Louisiana, one of the region’s most conservative states, Democrat John Bel Edwards is leading polls against former Sen. David Vitter, with early runoff voting starting today. Vitter’s candidacy has been tinged by scandal and may suffer from vicious infighting among Republicans.

Mr. Black at Emory says Mr. Edwards’ success in the polls has little to do with Democratic policy or promises and more to do with Vitter’s flaws. “The only way Democrats can win in the South right now is if Republicans field an unelectable candidate,” he says.

Democrats also have to work hard to retain support among African-Americans, especially as Bevin's win in Kentucky came after he reached out to the black working class on school choice.

In Advantage 2020, a $70 million Democratic plan to retake lost ground in red America, a huge focus is on rebuilding state party apparatuses, which Democrats acknowledge have "atrophied" under Obama. Others say that problems in the South don't necessarily mean that Democrats have lost the white working class in the West and Midwest, for example, as evidenced by statewide Democratic victories in heartland states such as Ohio in recent years.And given the way the US electorate has a historical tendency to balance party power in Washington by rewarding the other party at the state level, "there's nothing wrong with the Democrats that losing the presidency probably won't fix," as Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College, in Clinton, NY, writes on Vox.Or as Matt Vespa writes for Town Hall: "Maybe Democrats just need to get over Obamamania and think clearly."

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